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Nearly 5,000 Sexual Victimizations Counted in Three Years in U.S. Prisons and Jails

by Douglas Ankney

On January 31, 2023, the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report counting 4,895 sexual assaults on U.S. prisoners and detainees in just three years. From 2016 through 2018, the report said, there were 2,666 incidents of substantiated prisoner-on-prisoner sexual victimization and 2,229 incidents of substantiated staff-on-prisoner sexual victimization.

That’s an annual average of 888.7 substantiated sexual assaults on prisoners by fellow prisoners and another 743 substantiated sexual victimizations by staff – a combined total of more than four every day.

The report further broke down the attacks between those characterized as “abusive sexual contact” and those that were “non-consensual sexual acts.” Of the prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, almost four of every ten – a total of 1,023 – fell in the former group, which includes “intentional touching, either directly or through the clothing, of the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person,” not including contact made during an altercation. The remaining 1,643 incidents fell in the latter group, which involved contact “between the penis and the vulva or the penis and the anus, including penetration, however slight,” as well as contact “between the mouth and the penis, vulva, or anus” and “penetration of the anal or genital opening of another person, however slight, by a hand, finger, object, or other instrument.”

Treatment differed based on the type of attack. Victims of non-consensual sexual acts received medical examinations in 61% of incidents and 64% received some form of mental health treatment compared with 36% of victims of abusive sexual contact receiving medical examinations and 50% receiving mental health treatment. Almost 9% of substantiated incidents of prisoner-on-prisoner sexual victimization resulted in physical injury to the victim, including 4% that resulted in major injuries such as stab wounds, broken bones, or internal injuries.

Two thirds of the victims were male, including 56% of those subjected to “abusive sexual contact” – not surprising since most prisoners are male. Almost half the assaults occurred in the daylight hours. About one-third occurred in common areas such as bathrooms, showers and dayrooms, with another third happening in the victim’s cell or room. Tellingly, half of all prisoner-on-prisoner sexual victimizations occurred in areas not subject to video surveillance.

Afterwards, perpetrators of prisoner-on-prisoner nonconsensual sexual acts were placed in solitary or disciplinary custody 62% of the time, and 49% faced some form of legal action. Regarding abusive sexual contact, 55% of perpetrators went to solitary or disciplinary custody.

The BJS Report’s definition of staff-on-prisoner sexual victimization included both those incidents characterized as sexual misconduct (69.5%) and sexual harassment (31.5%). Of the perpetrators, 80% were full-time employees and 17% were contractors. Guards and supervisory staff were the perpetrators 64% of the time, while in 13% of the incidents maintenance or facility support staff were responsible, and medical/healthcare staff 10% of the time. In 10% of staff sexual harassment incidents and 26% of staff sexual misconduct incidents, the victim received a medical examination. The overwhelming majority (99%) of staff-on-prisoner victimizations did not result in physical injury to the victim.

There was a big difference based on the sex of the staff perpetrators: Two-thirds (67%) were female in cases of sexual misconduct, while two-thirds (69%) were male in cases of sexual harassment. That means that almost half (46.5%) of the staff perpetrators were women. Legal action was taken against the staff perpetrator in 38% of sexual misconduct incidents, versus just 5% of sexual harassment incidents. That means that male staffers faced less than a 16% chance of legal repercussions versus 27% for female staffers. The chances of losing a job followed a similar pattern; discharge or termination resulted in about 44% of sexual misconduct cases versus 24.9% of sexual harassment incidents. See: Substantiated Incidents of Sexual Victimization Reported by Adult Correctional Authorities, 2016 – 2018 (BJS 2023).  

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